The End of Policing exposes the political purposes behind the police, and the damage caused by the modern increase in their coercive power, argues Peter Stäuber

Alex S. Vitale, The End of Policing (Verso 2018), 272pp.

Last October the Guardian revealed that the British police have infiltrated dozens of left-wing organisations since the late 1960s. A database lists over a hundred groups that have been spied on by undercover agents, among them the Socialist Workers Party, the Stephen Lawrence campaign, and countless environmental and anti-racist groups.

But while the revelation was shocking, it was hardly surprising: controlling and suppressing groups that work towards political change has always been one of the main functions of policing. Indeed, the idea behind the creation of the first force in 1829, Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police, was not so much to fight crime, but for ‘managing disorder and protecting the propertied classes from the rabble’ (p.35), writes Alex S. Vitale in his book The End of Policing. The London model was soon applied across the Atlantic, where political and economic leaders in the industrial cities of the American east coast sought ways to ‘manage riots and the widespread social disorder associated with the working classes’ (pp.36-7).

While the practice of policing has undergone great changes in the course of the following decades, Vitale argues that the police force remains until this day a highly problematic institution. In many cases it does not help alleviate social and political problems, but instead makes them worse. The book is a compelling critique of modern policing, and it makes a well-founded case for its basic argument: the problem is not the way the police work, but the fact that they play far too big a role in our society. The problem is policing itself.

Policing civil rights

Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, focuses almost exclusively on the USA, where the scope of the coercive power of the police and its impact on society are probably more dramatic than in other Western countries. He traces the origin of modern policing to the civil-rights era, when the ‘law and order’ approach was a way for the Republicans to harness the support of white Southerners. The economic crisis of the 1970s, and the resultant rise in unemployment, led to a further drive to manage the ‘surplus population’, for example through mass imprisonment. The leadership of the Democratic Party later followed suit: in their desire to appear tough on crime, they introduced punitive laws that led to a massive expansion of the prison population in the past three decades.

Crucially, Vitale argues that policing is in many ways a form of social control. It disproportionately targets poor and ethnic minority communities, who are the main victims of the coercive state. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the War on Drugs. Bill Clinton’s crime bills in the early 1990s, which increased the number of drug offences and provided more money for the Drugs Enforcement Agency and the prison estate, transformed policing. It led to:

‘the explosion in SWAT teams and other militarized forms of policing, asset forfeiture abuse, racial profiling and racist enforcement patterns, expanded powers to search people’s homes, persons, and automobiles without warrants, the criminalization of young people of colour, police corruption, and the development of a warrior mindset among police’ (p.135).

Punishment for social inequality

Vitale examines several other areas in which an increasingly punitive approach to social problems has a detrimental effect on society, from gang suppression to the way in which the police deal with – or rather fail to deal with – mental health, or to the criminalisation of homelessness. This approach originates in the conservative ‘broken windows’ theory, according to which a shabby environment leads to crime. Regardless of the fact that the theory is complete nonsense and has been disproven, it forms the basis of the heavy-handed policing of rough sleepers. In Seattle, for example, homeless people can be banished from a certain area for committing minor crimes, and then, if they violate the ban, arrested. This has opened the door to police officers discriminating ‘based on perceived social status rather than specific conduct’ (pp.92-3). Meanwhile, the underlying causes of homelessness are not dealt with at all:

‘We live in an economic and social environment in which the market is unable to house people at the bottom of the economic order and government is unwilling to make up the difference. Given this reality, how can we justify treating homelessness as a criminal justice issue?’ (p.99).

Vitale ends his book with an examination of political policing, which remains today as big a problem as it was in the nineteenth century:

The myth of policing in a liberal democracy is that the police exist to prevent political activity that crosses the line into criminal activity, such as property destruction and violence. But they have always focused on detecting and disrupting movements that threaten the economic and political status quo, regardless of the presence of criminality (p.201).

Examples abound, both in the UK as well as in the United States. During the civil-rights era, the police targeted peace activists, students and black-liberation organisations, sometimes killing its leaders. It was only when activists in 1971 exposed the way police had been secretly gathering information on left-wing groups that government was forced to shut down many of these programmes and place restrictions on the police. However, since 9/11, the ‘police have rehabilitated their intelligence-gathering infrastructure under the cover of terrorism prevention’ (p.207). A conflation of political activism by nonviolent groups and terrorism has been the norm since; the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund found out, for example, that the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a ‘terrorist threat’ (p.211).

Vitale doesn’t just highlight the problems, but offers solutions. He stresses that in order to address the underlying issues, a political response is necessary. Rather than treating social issues through coercive measures, the root causes need to be dealt with: in most cases, the real problem is an economic system that produces inequality and hollows out democracy.

‘Communities must directly confront the political, economic, and social arrangements that produce the vast gulfs between the races and the growing gaps between the haves and the have-nots’ (p.30).

Peter Stauber

Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.